Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Team players

By V Ramnarayan

I was a participant not long ago in a debate on Facebook initiated by vocalist Lakshmi Sreeram who asked, “Why did the violin not emerge as an accompaniment in Khayal as it did so successfully in Carnatic music?” A few opinions were duly offered and trashed or appreciated based on the debater’s place in music and understanding of the situation prevailing in both the southern and northern systems of music. Lakshmi herself is in the (un) enviable position of being an accomplished performer in both streams, but some of the others were naturally limited by their preferences and domain knowledge. I posited two basic arguments: first that the few Hindustani violinists, especially those of high quality, perhaps do not want to play second fiddle, preferring to be solo artists; second that it may be time to provide accompanying violinists in Carnatic music greater openings to display their art, their creativity. I suggested a jugalbandi format in which the vocalist and the violinist appear on stage as equals, as if they were a vocal or instrumental duo. It is a variation from the usual concert structure I have thought of and even discussed with some musicians who are not averse to the idea—purely as an interesting occasional alternative, no more. Lakshmi Sreeram was quick to point out that I might not find too many musician takers for my idea, and she is probably right. She also mentioned how great musicians through the decades have collaborated in a spirit of teamwork to produce great music. Again there can be no quarrel with her statement. Great partnerships on stage have always been the prime reason for the success of Carnatic music concerts.

My jugalbandi idea is based entirely on the assumption that the vocalist and violinist are of equally high calibre; they must also be perfect team players. It cannot work between two people bent upon upstaging each other, a not uncommon practice in the past, if not now. At any rate, there is no likelihood that such a pair will ascend the stage to perform in tandem as equals. My whole thinking on the subject was prompted by some idle speculation on my part on the psychology of an accompanist. Does a violinist, who has spent a lifetime perfecting his art, not feel the urge occasionally to express himself with freedom, untrammelled by pakka vadya dharmam? How does he get to do that in the absence of solo concert opportunities, as is the case nowadays?

The answer to my question is probably provided in Lakshmi Sreeram’s assertion. When a vocalist and a violinist perform together without their egos interfering with the satisfactory execution of a concert plan, both artists can give free vent to their creativity, with of course the lead artist—the vocalist—setting the agenda. The more generous vocalists even allow the violinist to lead the way with his or her own ideas; give and take would about sum it up.

Some of our musicians are known to make undying declarations of humility, on the primacy of the vocalist, on the clearly supporting role they themselves play. This, like the much-celebrated virtue of guru bhakti which sometimes seems overdone, makes you wonder how the artist ever works up the motivation to express himself. Yet, great violinists like Lalgudi Jayaraman or TN Krishnan have always managed to produce glorious manodharma essays without breaching the code of the accompanist. For example, the duration of their raga alapana is invariably shorter than the time taken for the same purpose by the vocalist, but that does not curtail their creativity.

I am not fond of drawing parallels between music and sport (cricket, to be more specific as I played the game as a professional), but for once my ruminations on this subject took me to paradigms that make the game so great. Like other team games, cricket allows the individual to give the fullest expression to his own talent, even compete with a teammate, yet contribute to the team’s cause. I remember watching from close quarters the iconic Pakistan fast bowling pair Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz competing fiercely with each other while bowling in tandem. Each was openly trying to prove better than the other, but the net result was agony for the opposing batsmen, ecstasy for their own team. The famed Indian spinners were fine team men but each of them was also extremely proud of his art. They again operated in friendly combat among themselves to the team’s advantage. This was even more obvious when two of the same kind played together—for example Prasanna and Venkataraghavan, both off-spinners for South Zone.

Another wonderful example of team spirit in cricket is a partnership between a top order batsman and a tailender—when the senior must forego singles while farming the strike, and the other batsman has to be content with defence and handing over the strike to the specialist batsman. I have also been witness to superb displays of sportsmanship in the team’s cause, when a younger, fitter batsman takes on the quicker bowlers, to enable an ageing but more accomplished batsman to thrash the less dangerous bowlers.

Coming back to the subject under discussion, I was a lucky listener at a recent vocal concert by veteran Suguna Purushottaman, who, a little under the weather, had to exercise considerable restraint, especially when her voice was challenged by the demands of manodharma. As is her wont, she was all smiling and cheerful encouragement to her accompanists, who rose to the occasion in a true spirit of cooperation. While J Vaidhyanathan and BS Purushottam were delightfully nuanced in their understated percussion support, Dr R Hemalatha proved yet again what a perfect accompanist she can be. She played follow-the-leader with scrupulous care, but blossomed in her own manodharma forays. She is one violinist who seems to have mastered the art of aligning her style with that of the main artist without any diminution in her own creative explorations.

1 comment:

  1. I attended the concert as well. It was quite enjoyable for the creativity of the performers. Especially the single avartana kalpana swaram for Rupaka thala kriti Kalyani - Nammi vacchina. Kalpanaswara for the opening piece Nattai(Sarasirukapriye) was also sounded different from the routinely heard ones.

    A R S Mani - Chennai